36 Hours in Telluride, CO

Subtle graffiti on this sign on the way into Telluride ("pricy" conditions may exist) signal locals' ambivalence toward the town's growth and gentrification.

Subtle graffiti on this sign on the way into Telluride ("pricy" conditions may exist) signals locals' ambivalence toward the town's growth and gentrification.

This weekend, Sept. 4 – 7, Telluride’s annual film festival will transform the town. Its population of about 2200 will triple and its main street, Colorado Avenue, will be packed with visitors. I’ve never actually been to Film Fest but hear the scene is undeniably cool, and my family got a kick out of spotting Ken Burns outside of our favorite burrito place (La Cocina de Luz) the other night.

As a quasi-local lifelong lover of Telluride, I can’t help feel some reverse snobbery and sadness that a lot of these festival-goers — like a lot of skiers who briefly visit in winter — miss out on some of the more authentic, historic and out-of-the-way treasures that make Telluride what it is. For them, I offer this alternative weekend guide to Telluride, with apologies to The New York Times Travel Section for copping its “36 Hours” format. (The Times published its own “36 Hours in Telluride” in January of 2005, which was geared toward winter activities and dining and shopping downtown.)

Friday afternoon: Arrive in Telluride. Got that? TELLURIDE, not Mountain Village. I have heard dear misinformed friends say, “Oh, I love Telluride!” and then reveal that they spent a week in Mountain Village over Christmas break, as though the two towns were synonymous. They are not. Mountain Village is an oversized, overpriced and soulless master-planned golf and ski village-with-no-sense-of-community carved into the mountain above Telluride in 1987 and connected to town by a gondola. Its collection of hotel-sized homes, high-density condos and massive lodges senselessly thrown up around ski runs and fairways follows a disastrous design aesthetic that mixes Swiss Chalet, Italianate, Rocky Mountain Logs on Steroids and Disneyland California Craftsman. Most of these dwellings are vacation retreats and consequently sit empty, contributing to a spooky emptiness and “For Rent” signs on many Mountain Village storefronts. The weirdness of the place inspired the utterly brilliant mockumentary Lost People of Mountain Village, a must-see for any Telluride Film Festival-goer.

(In case you’re wondering why I dislike the place so much: I remember how that mountainside looked in its natural state because I took care of a horse there in the summer of ’86 and loved riding where the golf course now sits, and every time I drive to town on Last Dollar Road, the exquisite view of Telluride is marred by the The Peaks Resort dominating the landscape. ‘Nuff said.)

So, back to Telluride midday on a Friday. Start on the corner of Oak and Colorado Ave., in between two famous historic buildings: the San Miguel County Courthouse and the Sheridan Opera House. Buy a crepe or falafel from one of the food carts if you’re hungry, and cross the street to soak in the scene at a grassy square called Elks Park. There, mounted on some boulders in the park’s garden and at other points around town, are plaques describing Telluride’s past. Reading about these milestone moments — involving the mines, the railroad, and the flip of a switch that lit up the town and successfully demonstrated alternating current for the first time — gives visitors an appreciation for the town’s colorful history, which has been shaped by forward-thinkers, risk-takers and boom-and-bust cycles.

Hungry for more info on the region, walk down the block to Between the Covers bookstore and cafe, a beloved local institution since 1974. Be sure to buy a copy of The Telluride Story: A Tale of Two Towns by David S. Lavender (shameless plug — it’s written by my grandfather, with an update by my dad). Then, walk one more block down to Fir, hang a left, and up two more to the Telluride Historical Museum.

My kids in front of the Telluride Historical Museum.

My kids in front of the Telluride Historical Museum.

I simply love this place. It’s in the town’s old hospital, built in 1896, and takes an hour or less to tour. My favorite room there replicates the house and lifestyle of Harriet Fish Backus, author of the memoir Tomboy Bride, about living in the Tomboy Mines community above Telluride at the turn of the century.

Stretch your legs in the afternoon with an easy walk to and around Town Park (follow either Colorado or Pacific avenues east to reach it) — a place our family visits nearly every day because the kids love the fishing pond, play structure, public pool and ice rink. Here, on the field that stretches out below Bear Creek Canyon, big-name bands rock the park under blue skies or stars, making an unforgettable concert experience.

Morgan's snapshot of The Grateful Dead playing Telluride Town Park in 1987.

Morgan's snapshot of The Grateful Dead playing Telluride Town Park in 1987.

(I still consider seeing the Grateful Dead there in ’87, on a weekend of trippy planetary alignment known as the Harmonic Convergence, a highlight of my college days.)

Where was I? The Dead, ’87 … oh yes, Town Park. From there, take an easy walk, just under 2 miles, east on the San Miguel River trail (toward the end of town) and you’ll be on a path toward Bridal Veil Falls called the Idarado Legacy Trail, basically a bike path but a beautiful place to stroll, with more plaques about the area’s history along the way. If you’re up for a real run, hike, bike or 4-wheel-drive excursion, keep going where the pavement ends at the old Pandora Mill and continue up, up, up 1,200 feet of switchbacks to Bridal Veil Falls, where a 105-year-old, fully restored hydroelectric powerhouse sits perched at the top of falls that tumble almost 400 feet. (“That looks like the house from Up!” my daughter exclaimed when she first glimpsed the powerhouse). It’s about a mile and a quarter from the end of the Idarado Legacy Trail to the bottom of Bridal Veil falls, with spectacular views of town along the way.

Life is sweet on Telluride's main street! Here our family -- including my parents, brother, and sister-in-law -- eats ice cream from The Sweet Life on Colorado Ave.

Life is sweet on Telluride's main street! Here our family -- including my parents, brother, and sister-in-law -- eats ice cream from The Sweet Life on Colorado Ave.

Friday dinner: Telluride’s copious dining choices are too diverse to detail here, so I’ll mention just one favorite: Hongas Lotus Petal, an eclectic menu with a great atmosphere (upscale but relaxed) that bills itself as Pan Asian and mostly organic. I love being able to get inventive salads, Thai curries and high-quality sushi all in one sitting, and they have an appealing kids’ menu. Afterward, indulge in ice cream at The Sweet Life on Colorado Avenue near the corner of Pine.

Saturday morning: Get an early start because two of the best runs or hikes from town — Tomboy Mine and Bear Creek Falls — can get relatively crowded with weekend trekkers. Fuel up on bagels at Baked In Telluride on Fir Street, the best local bakery.

Morgan and the kids stop by Baked In Telluride for bagels and muffins.

Morgan and the kids stop by Baked In Telluride for bagels and muffins.

Then choose either Tomboy or Bear Creek for a morning-long outing.

Tomboy: harder (5 miles one way and 2650 elevation gain), glorious views of town and the mountains, and you’re rewarded by arriving at the ghost town of the old mining camp (read about some Tomboy history and my experience running up there on an earlier blog post). You can go two miles farther up to reach the 13,114-foot Imogene Pass. The downside is you’ll encounter Jeeps and dirtbikes on this road since it’s open to 4-wheel-drive high-clearance vehicles. The trailhead is at the north end of Oak Street.

Bear Creek: easier than Tomboy (just under 2.5 miles, 1040 feet elevation gain and less rocky of a road) and in some ways nicer than Tomboy because the road is closed to vehicles and winds through a forest. You’re rewarded by reaching the gushing Bear Creek falls. The downside is you miss the view of town that Tomboy offers, but the view from the top of this canyon offers more than enough payoff to make the hike worth it. The trailhead is at the end of South Pine Street.

Saturday lunch: If you’re famished from several hours of high-altitude exercise, I’d recommend the Floradora Saloon on main street near the corner of Pine. The Floradora used to be a funkier local’s spot — a Western saloon version of Cheers — back in the day when a gregarious New York transplant named Howie ran it and my oldest sister’s friend’s stained-glass creations hung from all the walls.  Like the town, the Floradora’s vibe and menu have changed — it’s as much Californian as Coloradan, with cosmopolitan twists (e.g. chipolte aioli and roasted veggies) on burger-and-fries standards — but being a Californian in Colorado, I can’t say I don’t like it.

Saturday afternoon: Carve out a couple of hours to read and browse at the fabulous Wilkinson Public Library, a 20,000-square-foot brick building at the corner of Pine and Pacific, which opened in 2000 after a referendum that passed by only two votes. With a calendar full of free movies and events, the place feels as much like a community center as a library. My kids spend hours in the children’s room there, reading in a treehouse-type structure or playing on the computer terminals. The upstairs Telluride Room is dedicated to regional history.

If you consider shopping a recreational activity and feel the need to spend money on Colorado Ave., then spend it at two venerable shops: Telluride Trappings & Toggery, and Zia Sun. The Toggery has been around forever (or at least 30-plus years) and still has the best selection of clothing and jewelry for women, men and kids — truly wearable, long-lasting, good-looking stuff. Zia Sun has a distinctive collection of toys, knick-knacks and cards and has always been more practical than touristy.

Whenever you’re shopping downtown Telluride, stop by and pay homage to The Free Box, an iconic institution at the corner of North Pine and Colorado. The “box” is actually a collection of cubbies full of free clothing and household items that people swap. Its proudly grassroots, good-karma tradition was tarnished in recent years when the corner became a dumping ground for unsightly bulky items like rotting sofas and broken appliances, but local leaders enacted some regulation to restore the balance and The Free Box lives on. (Read a lovely article about it by fiction writer Antonya Nelson, a Telluride native, in this month’s Smithsonian.)

Saturday night: As mentioned above, the fine-dining and bar-hopping options are plentiful, but after such a full day I’m ready to turn in early.  A night at home with a take-and-bake from Brown Dog Pizza (110 W Colorado Ave.) and a six-pack of my favorite regional brew, Dale’s Pale Ale, bought across the street at Telluride Liquors, suits me just fine.

Bonus content if you have an extra half-day to spend. (Leave it to me to write the section below before realizing that would add up to approx 48 hours, not 36. Oh, well!)

Sunday morning: Drive down Highway 145 to explore the area known as Down Valley. The red-rock-rimmed canyon carved by the San Miguel River travels through the homey communities of Sawpit and Placerville. Stop at the Sawpit Store, 12 miles west of Telluride, for essential fishing and picnic supplies. Then, if you have kids, go a bit farther down the highway until just before you reach the town of Placerville, and on the left by the river sits Down Valley Park. A fishing pond, play structure, river trail and sports field satisfy everyone’s desires for outdoor fun.

Morgan helps Colly and Kyle catch and release a trout from Down Valley Park near Placerville.

Morgan helps Colly and Kyle catch and release a trout from Down Valley Park near Placerville.

Finally, a trip to Telluride wouldn’t feel complete to me without a picnic at Woods Lake, about a 9-mile drive from Highway 145 up Fall Creek Road. It’s hard to say what makes this lake so special — our family’s tradition of camping there no doubt influences my recommendation — but virtualy anyone would appreciate the serenity of the glassy water ringed by mountains among the aspen groves.

(Thanks to my parents, David G. and Val Lavender, who used to live in Telluride; and my brother and sister-in-law, David W. and Karen Lavender, who currently live in Telluride and teach at the local high school, for their input.)

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3 Comments

  1. Sarah, September 5, 2009:

    ah, the memories this creates of the three fun filled summers I spent living, hiking, and exploring the back country in and around Deep Creek Mesa with your family back in the late 70s are so special. That was long before Telluride got ‘discovered’ and Mountain Village was born–there was only one paved road in town back then and you could actually afford a piece of real estate then! I am pleased to see that several of the former favorite haunts are still going and I do hope to return for a visit next summer. Great post, Sarah, and it makes me miss all of you. My memories of Telluride are all good ones…with the exception, perhaps, of a late night torrential downpour and our midnight run to Spruce Lodge! xo

  2. Paula Brown, November 6, 2009:

    Thanks for the insight, the memories, and the suggestions! I think everyone should read Tomboy Bride for its window into the real west, and now I will definitely have to visit the museum. The Floradora was a favorite lunch stop in the early 80s, so I think a return visit is in order.

  3. Sean, August 5, 2012:

    Hi,

    Thanks so much for sharing your insight on this. I’m reading this in 2012, and was trying to decide between staying in Telluride or MV (was leaning Telluride to begin with, this has nailed it on the head). It sounds like exactly what I’m looking for.

    Best,
    Sean

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